METOVNICA, Serbia — The well in the retired couple’s yard, their only source of clean water, began to dry up two years ago. Last year, dead fish started washing up on the banks of the river that runs by their home in a bucolic village in southeastern Serbia.
But most disturbing of all for Verica Zivkovic and her husband, Miroslav, are the ever-widening cracks in the walls of the house they built after moving to the countryside more than a decade ago to raise goats.
“We came here for the peace and quiet,” said Ms. Zivkovic, 62, but that all changed when a Chinese company arrived.
In 2018, the company, the Zijin Mining Group, took control of a money-losing copper smelter in the nearby city of Bor and began blasting away in the nearby hills in search of copper and gold.
While the couple and many other locals bemoan the arrival of the miners, the Serbian government has enthusiastically welcomed Chinese companies like Zijin, despite their record of flouting environmental rules. Many of the companies bring in workers from China rather than hiring Serbs, and critics say some are helping Serbia’s government roll back democratic freedoms.
When Zijin purchased the previously state-owned smelter, after a different Chinese company bought an ailing steel plant near the capital, Belgrade, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, hailed Chinese investors as his country’s saviors.
Chinese money had kept afloat two of Serbia’s biggest but badly listing manufacturing enterprises, saving more than 10,000 jobs and fortifying what the two countries describe as their “friendship of steel.”
For others, however, this friendship highlights the peril of transferring to Europe an approach to investment and its impact on locals that Chinese companies have employed in poorer regions of the world.
“China is operating in Serbia the same way it did in Africa — it has the same strategy,” said Dragan Djilas, a businessman and former Belgrade mayor who now leads Serbia’s biggest opposition party.
The linchpin of that strategy around the world has been to establish close relations with a local strongman — in Serbia’s case, Mr. Vucic, democratically elected but increasingly authoritarian in his ways.
Mr. Vucic has become perhaps China’s biggest cheerleader in Europe. He has brushed aside complaints about its business practices and declared China, which has not only invested hundreds of millions of dollars but also provided millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines, to be “the only ones who can help us.”
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, Mr. Vucic said last year, is “not only a dear friend but a brother.”
That was a role previously played by Russia, which is tied to Serbia by a shared Orthodox Christian faith and deep cultural and political bonds going back centuries.
But, said Mr. Djilas, the former Belgrade mayor, “we now have a new Big Brother.”
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic disputed this, noting that while “Chinese companies are helping Serbia enormously,” German businesses employ more of its people.
But it is often the nature as much as the scale of China’s role that attracts criticism. The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, for example, has installed hundreds of surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology around Belgrade, which the government says will help reduce crime. But privacy advocates say they have been used to identify and deter protesters, and show how Mr. Vucic is using China to advance what critics see as a steady reduction of freedoms.
The love-in between the elected leader of Serbia, which aspires to join the European Union and claims to share its democratic values, and Mr. Xi, leader of one of the world’s most repressive countries, has dismayed Serbians who want to join Europe, not tilt eastward.
By offering big loans, vaccines and investment free of the constraints that would be imposed by the European bloc, China has helped Mr. Vucic deliver on promises to develop Serbia’s economy.
But, said Marinika Tepic, a prominent opposition politician, it is also helping “to build a police state.”
That exaggerates Mr. Vucic’s grip, but the U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House downgraded Serbia in 2019 from “free” to “partly free,” citing a tightening grip on politics, civil liberties and the media.
In January, 26 members of the European Parliament demanded a review of the “growing impact of China’s economic footprint in Serbia,” including “reckless projects with potentially devastating multiple impacts on the wider environment as well as surrounding population.”
The roots of Serbia’s tilt toward China date to 1999, during the Kosovo war, when U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. On that site now stands a huge Chinese cultural center. A marble memorial stone outside bears inscriptions in Serbian and Chinese hail China’s “martyrs.”
But memories of shared suffering at American hands have faded in places like Bor, site of the Chinese-owned smelter.
Pollution from the Bor plant skyrocketed to many times the legally permitted level in 2019 and 2020, setting off a series of street protests and prompting Zijin Mining’s general manager in Serbia to tell his managers last October that he was “very dissatisfied” with the “frightening” level of pollution, according to leaked minutes of the meeting.
He blamed the bad publicity, which he said had damaged “the government of the People’s Republic of China,” on “people who are in favor of the West and receive support” who “have stood in opposition to our work.”
Bor’s mayor, Aleksandar Milikic, a Vucic loyalist, initially dismissed the protests as the work of political agitators.
But, apparently worried about losing votes, he announced last year that he would file a court case against Zijin for negligence. It is not clear whether he actually did so. The mayor declined to be interviewed. Zijin Mining did not respond to requests for comment.
Milenko Jovanovic, an air pollution expert, said he was fired in November from Serbia’s Environmental Protection Agency after raising concerns about dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air around Bor.
The government, he said, rejected anything that might upset China and its investors. “It lets them do whatever they want to do,” he said.
A court in Belgrade ruled this month that Mr. Jovanovic had been unfairly dismissed and ordered that he be given his job back.
Activists concede that air pollution levels in Bor have fallen since protests, but say that the main danger has now shifted to towns and villages to the south, where hundreds of Chinese workers brought in by Zijin are developing one of the world’s biggest unexploited copper deposits, and digging for gold.
The earth around the new mine trembles from blasting work and the heavy trucks, driven by Chinese workers, that rumble along roads adorned with China’s red national flag. Rivers and streams are discolored by effluent.
The government has added to public anger by issuing expropriation orders so that Zijin can build access roads and expand its mine. Dragan Viacic, a farmer, said he had received a letter from Serbia’s finance ministry informing him that he must sell 13 acres of his land at a fraction of the market price.
“They said this was necessary in the public interest but in reality this is just the interest of the Chinese,” he said.
In Metovnica, a village near the mine, Mr. Zivkovic and his wife used to have 25 goats but, with no clean water on hand after their well dried up, they now keep just one.
“Why don’t we have any water anymore? Why are there no fish in the river?” The answer, he said, is Zijin Mining Group.
Pointing to fissures radiating across the wall of his house that appeared last year after Chinese miners started using explosives, Mr. Zivkovic said: “It was a tiny crack at first but then it spread.”
Confident that it has the support of Mr. Vucic and his officials, the mining company and other Chinese ventures in Serbia have mostly ignored complaints and shrouded their operations in secrecy.
Sasa Stankovic, an environmental activist and elected member of the Bor regional council, said he had tried unsuccessfully to contact Zijin to discuss pollution levels. The copper smelter in Bor, he said, had been hazardous to health for decades, but the dangers jumped sharply after Zijin arrived and ramped up production.
Bor now accounts for a stunning 80 percent of Serbian exports to China, repeating a pattern widely seen in Africa of Chinese firms extracting natural resources for shipment back to China.
At Slatina, a village down the road, Miodrag Zivkovic, a local farmer stood on a rickety bridge over the Bor River, its waters thick with sludge and garbage, and said: “We didn’t go to the Chinese mine but the mine came to us.”
All the same, he said, given the few jobs available in the region, his son would still like to get work at the smelter, which pays relatively well. “Everyone here needs a salary and is ready to risk everything,” he lamented.
Cao Li contributed reporting from Hong Kong and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.